NEW DELHI: The menace of fake news is showing no sign of waning despite a government crackdown and a slew of self-regulation measures taken by social media platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook.
Spread of fake news has hit a new high in 2019 with every major event, from the general elections and Pulwama attacks to scrapping of Article 370 and the ongoing protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, triggering extensive distribution of misinformation across social media platforms, fact checkers say.
With the number of posts they worked on and busted rising 20-50% this year, fact checkers are now looking at expanding the scope of their work next year by hiring more people, introducing fact checking in more Indian languages, and conducting more awareness workshops.
“2019 has been a unique year where fact checkers continuously kept moving from one event to the other, and this has been the busiest year for us so far,” said Jency Jacob, managing director at Mumbai-based fact-checking website BOOM, which works with Facebook to check stories and tags specific posts spreading misinformation on the platform. “Everyone thought after the general elections there would be a lull. But significant events like the Pulwama attacks and India’s retaliatory attack, Article 370 and the recent CAB Act kept us on our toes,” he said.
Check4Spam, a non-profit entity that verifies posts on social media, said the number of messages it received to check veracity increased more than 20% this year at 5,000-6,000 posts per month against about 4,000 messages last year. “The number of queries is mostly driven by the events happening around the country,” said Ekta Sreenivas, its head of fake news research. “During elections, the fake information rises and WhatsApp is flooded with queries. We try and debunk as much as possible with our resources,” she said.
India has the largest number of social media users in the world across platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, WhatsApp, ShareChat and TikTok. Fake stories, rumours and hate speech spread through social media have been connected to various incidents of mob attacks and lynching in the country. Under pressure from the government and regulators such as the Election Commission, social media platforms have introduced various restrictions on sharing of posts and blocked accounts of many users involved in spreading misinformation. Yet, the menace continues.
Fact checkers plan to expand their work to more regions and languages to limit the spread of misinformation in the country. “The amount of information that we have had to debunk has increased manifold this year, especially around key events like Balakot, Pulwama, JNU, Kashmir and the Kathua rape incident. Any issue that captures national attention comes with misinformation,” said Pratik Sinha, founder of Alt News.
He is hoping for more grants for his company next year. “We would want to do fact checking in more languages like Gujarati and Bengali, but we are completely dependent on grants and donations. In the coming year, we also want to do more training around the country as misinformation is also an information literacy issue,” Sinha said.
BOOM, too, is looking at more languages like Kannada and Malayalam. It also wants to add Bangla before the West Bengal elections due in 2021, Jacob said. “We are doing more videos,” he said.
In February this year, Facebook announced expansion of its third-party fact-checking programme ahead of the general elections and added five new partners — India Today Group, Vishvas-.news, Factly, Newsmobile, and Fact Crescendo. It also added additional languages like Bengali, Telugu, Malayalam, Tamil and Marathi, making India the largest language coverage and partner set in the company’s fact-checking programme.
In April, Facebook added more regional languages including Punjabi, Urdu and Gujarati, which were followed by Assamese and Kannada in September.
This week, Facebook-owned Instagram said it is expanding its fact-checking programme globally to allow fact-checking organisations to assess and rate misinformation on its platform. This means news labelled as fake on Facebook will now be marked as fake on Instagram too.
Source: Economic Times